Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Book Review: The Genius

"A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein." Or so saith Joe Theismann, supposedly. Alas, David Harris's The Genius is a biography not of Norman Einstein, not even Albert Einstein, nor Mr. Theismann himself, but instead of the man of whom I believe Joe was speaking: Bill Walsh. "The Genius" was, of course, the sobriquet Walsh earned by virtue of his success with the 49ers, a previously sad-sack franchise he and new owner Eddie DeBartolo turned into a juggernaught for a decade and a half.

As far as biographies go, this is one. One of the heuristics I use for evaluating biographies, especially when I don't have really strong feelings about the book, is a look at sources and methods. Who wrote the book, and how did he write it? I wasn't too complimentary in my recent review of Cantor's Paul Brown bio because I have no idea how he wrote it. This seems to be Harris's second football book, after The League, which is currently sitting on my bar counter unread. No help there. So, how did he write The Genius? The most important resource is clearly Bill Walsh. Walsh let Harris use his personal collection of videos of him talking, including installing gameplans and speeches and talks he gave. Harris also conducted a number of interviews, the most important of which were with Walsh. If you're looking for context, then, The Genius is in the same semi-authorized genre also occuped by the new Warren Buffet bio, The Snowball. Harris also interviewed a number of other people-the ubiquitous Dick Vermeil, Sam Wyche, and a number of former 49er players and coaches, though Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott appear through their books and other media accounts, and other players, including Jerry Rice and Steve Young, and key figures Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. and Carmen Policy don't seem to have cooperated at all. The primary player sources seem to be Dwight Clark, Randy Cross, Brent Jones, and Keena Turner.

What does that list of people mean? You're getting a pretty good look, but not a complete one. Note the player sources are white guys, plus a Walsh crony (see Turner's bio, Stanford experience). This is actually a bit of a lead-in for one of the things I thought most interesting about Walsh. Like all head coaches then and still most of them now, Walsh was white. He'd grown up in a white neighborhood, and spent time in the lily-white profession of football coaching. For most people, that creates some sort of insuperable divide, and Walsh was one of the first, if not the very first, coaches to recognize that. To solve it, he brought in Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards as a sort of meta-counselor to help players adapt to a new life of wealth and celebrity in an autocratic regime.

Enough screwing around/meandering through this review... so, how was the book? Harris competently gives a description of Walsh's career, sometimes giving a blow-by-blow description of games and sometimes glossing over entire weeks (reading 10 years worth of "dramatic" game-by-game descriptions gets tedious, something Harris rightly recognizes). After finishing the book, and including the description of Walsh's open and notorious adultery (see Buffett above) and general neglect of his family, I'm starting to firm up my belief being a great football coach is incompatible with the rest of humanity is about. Walsh was, comparatively at least, acclaimed for his interest in stuff other than football, but his obsession with the game and its tumults is at odds with that reputation of his. That's something I would have like Harris to do a better job of addressing, and it's a good contrast to the Lombardi bio, where Maraniss writes about how Vince Lombardi liked to come home and veg out in front of the TV for an hour or so every night before going back to work. That's the sort of perfect anecdote, simultaneously humanizing and de-humanizing the revered figure.

Another nit: Harris's other primary source is the daily newspaper. This is fine for news, but the vicissitudes of the columnists with inches to fill blathering heated words about stuff they don't understand and have no insight into detracts from the book. This is particularly true with respect to the quarterback "controversy" between Walsh and Young that started about 1987 and didn't end until Montana was traded to the Chiefs (parentheses not meant to deny the existence of a genuine controversey for at least some of that time). But, Harris is a journalist, and they do tend to think of journalism as "the first draft of history" or somesuch. It is in some cases, of course, but I strongly doubt anybody will be citing my Vince Young posts in their book twenty years hence, nor should they, but I submit the big one was about as insightful as pretty much any newspaper column on the subject (i.e., hardly at all).

Anyway, if you want to know more about Bill Walsh, go ahead and read The Genius. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time, and some of them appear in the sidebar under "Book Reviews." Not un-recommended to NFL fans, but also not particularly recommended to non-NFL fans.

For another take, see the New York Times review.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I just finished this Tom. I was roughly 10 to 20 when Walsh coached the Niners. I was even just south of San Francisco for the end of his tenure. I always thought of him as a rather serene guy for a football coach. I didn't realize that he had so much inner turmoil. One plus about the book and a couple of minuses:

1. One of my interests is in the business side of different sports and The Genius gives a little insight into how the 1987 player's strike affected the Niners. This isn't surprising, as Harris has written about the business end of football before.

2. Outside of Lawrence Taylor and a couple of Bengals, I don't think that Harris mentions any opposing players by name.

3. Harris does talk some about Walsh's offensive philosophy, but I wish that he'd discuss the Niner's defense more. Going by the book, they were a hard-hitting group; at least occasionally using the bump and run. Also, they may have been ahead of the curve when it came to situational substitutions.